By Sheryl Parbhoo
Because of my blond hair and green eyes, most would never suspect that Indian culture and religion are a part of me. Having met my Gujarati husband when we were teenagers though, meant I absorbed parts his culture and Hindu beliefs, just as he absorbed parts of my southern culture and Christian beliefs. Our multicultural life together has been a rollercoaster, and is the impetus for my writing career. My blog, Southern Life, Indian Wife and my novel, The Unexpected Daughter, were born from the emotional ups and downs in our cultural merger, and their popularity led to PBSNewshour featuring of us in a discussion on navigating intercultural holidays, as well Harvard Divinity School citing us in Raising Multi-faith Children. Despite the attention, my husband and I really have no magic recipe for handling two faiths in our family, but we have vowed not to choose one over the other. Hinduism and Christianity are equal players in our interfaith family, and these are the five reasons why.
1. I know the Lord’s Prayer and my husband knows the Gayatri Mantra.
Religion and culture go hand in hand. Babies are born into a culture, and are vessels of their culture throughout their lives. As a child, I was taught in church to pray to Jesus Christ, that He is the Savior and the face of salvation. I know the Lord’s Prayer, and speak to Jesus when I’m alone. Christianity is a part of me. It is what I know.
As a child, my husband and his mother recited the Gayatri Mantra together daily. His childhood home displayed images of Hindu gods and photos of his mother’s Rhada Soami master. Hinduism is a part of him. It is what he knows.
As parents, he and I bring to the table all that is inside us. We cannot unknow our prayers, nor do we want to. Jesus is my comfort, his Hindu beliefs are his comfort, and we share those equally with our children. They have never questioned us as to why we pray different ways with them sometimes, because it is normal for them.
They grasp that Dad is Indian and I am white, and we grew up differently. We are the only parents they have, and the way we pray is just the way we pray.
2. Who are we to judge?
“My way is better than your way.” Admit it, we have all felt this way before. We are human. History has been plagued with people of one religion hating on others who are different. The Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, Hindus and Muslims killing each other in India – you get the picture. Good people can do really bad things when they judge others.
One thing I am sure about is that I know some very moral, good people from many faiths, and it’s not my job to judge them. My husband and I believe that everyone finds God in their own way. If we taught our children that only Hinduism or Christianity is the correct faith, what message would that send to them about their loved ones who are on the “wrong team?” Imagine how desperate a child might feel to fear that a grandparent, aunt or uncle, or cousin would go to Hell. Sorry, but in our family, that is not okay.
Unfortunately, we have had ample teaching moments with my kids about how to handle judgement from others. When my youngest son was in third grade, his buddy’s father passed away and we attended the funeral, which was held at a Southern Baptist megachurch. During the eulogy, the preacher spoke of the virtues of Jesus followers and condemned Muslims as followers of a false God who wear bombs strapped to themselves to destroy true believers.
Yes. He really said that.
Despite my sudden urge to vomit and throw something hard at faces of the preacher and all of the people in the pews around us nodding their heads, I remained calm and held my son’s hand with firm love until the end. After we politely escaped when it was over, we talked in the car about how sad it was for those people that they hate others for their beliefs, and that instead of fighting them, we need to be examples of showing love and tolerance. I admitted to him that I was beyond angry, and that even though I believed a funeral – or any place- was not the right place for such disgusting words, I also respected his buddy, his family, and above all, us, enough to not follow suit. My son learned then, that there are haters in many places you wouldn’t expect, and since he now knows they want to make people feel bad, he should never, ever do that to someone else.
A year later, he came home from school and told me that other kids on the playground had taunted him and a Jewish friend, saying that they didn’t believe in God because Jews and Indians don’t believe in Jesus.
My son proudly reported that he told them off by saying, “I told those kids not to be be mean about something they don’t know anything about, and then me and my friend had more fun playing freeze tag with other kids.” I was so proud of my son for standing strong in the face of judgement, and I believe he will continue to do so for the rest of his life.
3. Lord Rama and Jesus are pretty cool guys
Religion is about learning moral messages. Did you have a super cool middle school teacher who made you want to learn? I did. Her name was Mrs. Little, and she was sarcastic, boisterous, and taught fun but challenging lessons. I learned from her because she was a rock star teacher in my mind. But, some students hated her and failed her class because they didn’t click. Conversely, these other students learned best from other teachers who I really couldn’t stand.
The same goes for religious faith. Hinduism and Christianity both have messages about how to live a good life in order to get a front row seat with God. I have five children who are very unique from each other in everything they do. By teaching them both faiths, we are giving them opportunities to receive moral and spiritual direction in ways that might appeal to them in their own way. To one, Jesus may be that rock star teacher that stirs up their soul, while another child may thrive on stories of Lord Rama and Sita, and the cool monkey god Hanuman to spark their soul. Whatever works, we’ll take it.
4. Cultural awareness is a gift
We live in a global culture. Even in the South, which is famously isolationist in its religious and social pride, we have seen huge numbers of “Yankee” and “foreign” transplants due to our economic prosperity. Yes, in the Atlanta area, there are still fundamentalist Christian churches on almost every street corner, but we also have many Jewish worship centers, a new massive Hindu temple, and a growing number of mosques.
Our children have Indian and a mixed bag of European heritage in their blood, and two different faith bases in their souls. They understand and accept with no hesitation that their Ba doesn’t eat meat like we do, because of her belief in reincarnation. They understand and accept, too, that their grandma is a non-practicing Christian who does not observe any faith really, while their Dad and I struggle to do a little of everything, and they get dragged along with us. So, just imagine how prepared they will be when they have to do school projects with diverse classmates or interact with diverse colleagues later in life. Because they know acceptance of diversity in their own family, it only makes sense that they will be pros at acceptance of diversity in the outside world.
There have been situations where the gift of their cultural awareness has already served them well. For example, when our daughter went away to college, she became friends with a guy who happens to be related distantly to the Indian side of our family. His parents made it clear to him that they disapproved of the friendship, presumably because she is not from a 100% Gujarati family, but our daughter took it in stride. We have always taught them that some will not like us because of our multicultural family and that the loss is not ours, but theirs. Our daughter gives herself the freedom to surround herself with valuable people of her choosing, and understands that close-minded people will never enjoy the rewards that kind of freedom has to offer.
5. We need as much God as we can get
I am so imperfect, it scares me. No matter how hard I try in life to be the best person I can be, I mess up – a lot. And my husband and kids, I dare say, are the same way. The way my husband and I see it in our family, any and all ways we can try to get spiritual help for our transgressions are a plus.
When we recently moved into a new home, my mother-in-law helped us perform a Hindu blessing ceremony, complete with diya, a coconut, and grains of rice stuck to our foreheads with sandalwood paste. We lit incense and prayed together, and later prayed to Jesus for his blessings on our family. We also go to church sometimes and discuss the messages we hear from our awesomely open-minded pastor. Our children seem to accept this as normal with a touch of juvenile complacency, and move on swiftly to hanging out with their friends afterward.
But we continue to keep an open dialogue about our two ideologies. This dialogue is full of contradictions, and they force us to explore inside ourselves. Isn’t that a good thing? We are all going to mess up in life. How could it hurt to cover all our bases?
Raising an intercultural, interfaith family is isolating, especially in the South where we have few like thinkers around us and virtually no support from faith organizations to help us.
Now that the sociopolitical climate of the United States has taken a xenophobic turn in recent months, our family is more than ever acutely aware of our differences from the rest of our community. My husband and my children look “foreign,” and some people now equate tan skin and Eastern looks with a religion that is vilified in the United States. So far, nothing has happened to our family, but since the February shootings of two Indian business men in a Missouri bar by an American man who spewed racial slurs at them and telling them to get out of his country, our reality has changed. I, a white woman who grew up free of fear from racial or religious discrimination, now fear for my husband and children because of intolerance born from ignorance.
We have mostly kept our interfaith ideology private in our daily lives, and now, as a mother, my initial instinct is to hide it away completely to protect my children. However, perhaps now more than ever, the world needs even more displays of interfaith, intercultural, and just plain tolerant people speaking out than ever before.
But, my palms sweat at the thought of putting my family on the haters’ radar by talking about our interfaith beliefs. It is one thing for them to shrug off school children’s taunts or to be snubbed by a parent, but it is a whole new ball of wax now that physical safety is at risk because they look and pray differently than those who might lash out.
My husband and I consciously united two cultural traditions when we married, and imperfectly and purposefully teach our children Hindu and Christian beliefs and acceptance of other ways of thinking beyond ours.
Now, we need to suck it up and live up to the lessons we have taught our children. The only way to change judgement and hate is to be an example of tolerance and love. And we can’t do that hiding in a closet somewhere. Our goal when we started raising our family was to honour our families’ ways equally to turn out happy and secure children. I see now that perhaps by doing so, we have made our own tiny dent on society, by sending a message of tolerance into the world through them. We are going to stop hiding our chosen ideology, keep praying and reciting mantras that fulfill us, until the last child flies from the nest. From there, we will hope for the best.
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